Jo Saker discusses why it may be time to recapture the real meaning of ‘Artisan’
Our supermarket shelves and fast food outlets are full of brands and products claiming artisan credentials but has the use of the term become so pervasive that it no longer seems meaningful? At one end we have skilled craftsmen, making food and drink in the traditional way using high quality local ingredients. At the other end the word is appearing as a signifier of premium on fast food menus and on mass-produced foods. Dominos has trialled its “premium artisan pizzas”; Starbucks has created an “artisan bread roll” used in its “artisan breakfast sandwich” and McDonalds has launched an “artisan chicken sandwich”.
It’s easy to see how the interpretation of artisan has been hi-jacked. A little bit of hand-crafting and quality ingredients alone do not make a product artisan. It appropriates the word, but not necessarily its meaning and values. Surely the real power of an artisan proposition is derived from the crafting and skill of the maker, the wealth of knowledge around traditional processes, the sense of community and the individual story behind every product? A decade or so ago, artisan foods were talked about as an exciting new thing. Accessibility through early farmer’s markets and the rise of speciality high street shops offered a new, intriguing, sensorial experience with a local identity.
We loved the way the sellers expressed their enthusiasm for their products – the simply-wrapped cheese that looked like real cheese, the bacon made from pigs who lived a happy life, jam made with locally grown fruit and nothing artificial. We were happy we were helping our environment by not buying over-packaged products and helping reduce carbon emissions by buying from a local source. Buzz words were ‘natural’, ‘local’ and ‘green’. True artisan brands now inject a social conscience and a strong sense of purpose. Detroit-based Shinola made a stand against the disposable commercial world by celebrating the importance of the craftspeople at the heart of its business. Shinola ensures its veterans train and mentor each generation of makers. The artisan makers of Felice Limone, a Limoncello spirit, customise each label by selecting from a set of stamps, showing images that capture the sentiment behind “making lemons happy” – a quirky, fun and individual expression of the maker’s personality.
Clever retailers are now capturing the heart and soul of the individual artisan and making it accessible on a much greater scale. Eataly, the largest Italian marketplace in the world grown out of the “Slow food” movement, brings to life an artisan experience in a chaotic, market style eating, drinking, shopping space that celebrates the joy and sociability of Italian food. Eataly is proof that a retailer can deliver artisan values on a large scale without diluting its real meaning. It becomes inclusive not exclusive. So, we’re seeing the rise of a new type of artisan, one that keeps the craftsman at the heart of the proposition, but engages at a deeper human level. This is all about a love of product that has a social conscience, a sense of purpose and shared values. The real artisan has a meaningful space at the heart of our community and stands apart from the empty promises of those that simply borrow the label.